HuffPost Women has a new campaign called “The Moment I Knew I Was a Woman, Not a Girl” in which users submit videos chronicling their exile from Girlville. It’s an interesting question, especially considering how dangerous it feels to be Living While Female these days. And it strikes to the core of gender, really. Because it begs the question: If puberty and sex organs are not what make you a woman (and I would argue that they are not), then what does? What act, what experience, what emotional moment is it that turns a person into a woman?
In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey offers a hilarious, and disturbingly on-point anecdote of when many realize they are, indeed, a woman:
When I was writing the movie Mean Girls—which hopefully is playing on TBS right now!—I went to a workshop taught by Rosalind Wiseman … [who] conducted a lot of self-esteem and bullying workshops with women and girls around the country. She did this particular exercise … with about two hundred grown women, asking them to write down the moment they first “knew they were a woman.” … The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.
I experienced car creepery at thirteen. … I was walking home alone from school and I was wearing a dress. A dude drove by and yelled, “Nice tits.” Embarrassed and enraged, I screamed after him, “Suck my dick.” Sure, it didn’t make any sense, but at least I don’t hold in my anger.
Indeed, pop culture, like so many of our lived experiences, offers little in the way of a clear message — other than “nice tits,” of course. By the time a girl (I’m just going to say girl/woman from here on out, but please know I am not trying to exclude other gender identities or experiences) reaches puberty, you’ve already been introduced to the choose-your-own-adventure nature of the female experience:
- Choose this door: Oh no! You’ve developed breasts before any of your female classmates! Boys (and probably some girls) notice you and the attention causes jealousy (and perhaps fear) amongst your female classmates. Now you’re branded a slut for the rest of your academic experience, regardless of your sexual history or interest! Therapy to fix scars for life, optional.
- Or this door: Get ogled by your chemistry teacher and hit-on in front of the entire class. Spend the rest of the year carrying an over-sized sweatshirt to class and dodging “extra credit.” (True story.)
- Try the fire exit: Spend your adolescence learning the proper way to ridicule your body and self-worth in front of any reflective surface or in any social situation where any authority figure offers you a compliment or praises your efforts. Well, anyone who compliments you really.
- Oops, dead-end: Fail math. On purpose. Because boys don’t like nerds. (See also: Don’t try in gym class to avoid perspiring/getting muscular/looking like a lesbian.)
- There’s always cheerleading: To avoid looking like a lesbian/athlete/nerd/ or other non-conforming person subject to intense ridicule and bullying, practice the art of leading a double-life. Pay special attention to pronouns, which celebrities/musicians you publicly endorse, consuming the “appropriate” pop culture for your strategy to work (i.e. disavow any knowledge of Star Wars and make sure to know everything about, say, American Idol), and be sure to wear as much pink and push your tits out as much as possible. Remember: a girl who’s sexually attractive to boys is a popular girl!
Then there’s always the strange universe of feminine product commercials/ads. Be sure to be hairless (because you must erase all evidence that you are a mammal, except for your tits, of course), odorless (because you smell disgusting, obviously), wash and properly scent every orifice (au natural is NOT on the menu, duh), and above all… wear white and jump around (or off stuff like diving boards) when you’re on your period. I’m not really sure what jumping around has to do with being a woman, but I guess it means that periods make you jump for joy? Also, lately I’ve noticed that a lot of period-related products have put a focus on the cuteness of their packaging. We’re supposed to care about how cute our tampon is now, too? This is exhausting!
And it’s gotten me no closer to any kind of universal symbol of womanhood.
Maybe I should delve deeper. Surely, I can unlock the code somewhere in my own experience. (It’s probably somewhere next to the G-spot.) Like the poem says, “Ain’t I a woman?” Well, I was born biologically female and identify as a woman so… oh, right, that’s not a very fun answer. I am a woman, damn it! (Better?)
Well, here’s the thing. When I look back at my own experience and ask myself, “When did you feel like you were a woman, and not a girl?” I don’t really like the answer very much. And not just because of the car creepery (which for me was more like, guys in bleachers at a football game, but same difference). When I think about when I transitioned from girlhood to womanhood, my answer is all tangled up by my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.
I experienced sexual abuse, off and on, from the age of five through 14. So that meant that in the pre-pubescent years, I was introduced to sexual experiences and thoughts and feelings about my body and other people’s bodies way, way before I was developmentally mature enough or prepared to handle them. In essence, I was hyper-sexualized in childhood. So, by the time I went through puberty, those things that might have seemed new or interesting to many were old and, in fact, highly emotionally charged with negative feelings that I had yet to process. Sex, sexual organs, being objectified by the male gaze, being reduced as a person to simply body parts… these were old news to me. So, by the time someone yelled “nice tits” to me, it just felt expected and dangerously frightening to me. It felt like the terrible experiences that had been only in a private space for years were suddenly possible anywhere by any post-pubescent male (creepy Chemistry teachers, included). It felt like I had grown bullseyes on my chest, rather than breasts. It felt like there was no safe place in the world anymore. And for the life of me, I could not understand how all the other girls could be excited by the attention and possibility. And I did my best to pretend that I liked it when a boy grabbed my ass in the hallway or made some lewd comment. Because I knew if I said I didn’t, it wouldn’t take long before I was called a dyke. And every adolescent girl knows that is one of the worst things to be called — even if you don’t know what it means, yet. (I feel I should clarify here that I am accepting and an ally to lesbians and any other GBTQ person. I’m just trying to highlight the lesbian-baiting in adolescence.)
So, I guess for me, I knew I was a woman when I could successfully pretend that I wanted the male gaze. And even more so when I learned how to deflect it, without looking like a man-hating lesbian, of course. Although, I’m beginning to see from Tina Fey’s story and others that even non-survivors felt threatened by this kind of creepy male interest.
But rather than leave this on a sour note … because right now it’s shaping up to look like the transition from girlhood to womanhood really sucks, from unwanted objectification to the arrival of menses. I think what we should do is re-frame the question. Because, let’s face it, I don’t think what marks manhood is all that much more glamorous or interesting than what marks womanhood.
I think a better question is: When did you finally feel at home in your skin as a woman? (Or man, or cisgender, or what-have-you.) Because my answer to that is much more positive and affirming as an experience and to who I am today. I finally felt at home in my skin as a woman when I was pregnant. Please don’t misconstrue this statement. It’s not a pitch that pregnancy or having kids makes you a woman or even a happy woman. But for me, as a survivor of sexual abuse, it was a time of deep personal healing. At first, it was difficult because I felt very publicly on display in terms of my femaleness. But as I lived in that experience longer and longer, it became more and more healing. It was the first time — maybe in my entire life — when being female and having female body parts did not feel threatening or dangerous or sexual in a way that was uncomfortable. The bigger my belly got, the more in command of my own body I felt (which is ironic, because you become less and less in command of your body the bigger you get!). I finally felt like my body was my space. And it felt like as the fetus grew inside me, that it was somehow healing for me that I could choose for that to happen. I could choose to become pregnant. I could choose to share my body with a fetus (we’ll leave reproductive politics out of this for today).
The funny thing about pregnancy was that it was probably the single most “womanly” I have appeared, in terms of outward appearance. The breasts grow. The belly grows. The hips widen. And even as I gained weight, it’s all a kind of glowing, fertile roundness that is so symbolic of womanhood. And considering that pregnancy is one of the most obvious signs that a woman has sex, it was a kind of display of my sexuality, too. (Albeit, a society approved way.) Somehow, by the end of my pregnancy, I just felt a peace with all my parts and all my womanhood. Finally, I am comfortable being a woman.
That is a much more interesting question and process to me. Maybe we don’t get “nice” stories about the introduction to adulthood. But with any luck, we find our way to peace in our bodies and our lived experiences. And that’s worth sharing. (So please feel free to share yours in the comments.)
Cross-posted on The Tired Feminist.